In recent years, more and more folks have been sending me messages asking about how to "get the most out" or "take advantage" of their newly-minted ultra-fast broadband connection -- one that can deliver Gigabit of download speed or even faster.
The Internet has been getting faster and faster, and that's exciting!
I myself have been using a Gigabit cable plan for more than two years at home and am in the process of getting a 10Gbps Fiber-optic plan. And for years, I have had business partners with multi-Gigabit Internet.
So when I say I know how it feels to have a super-fast broadband connection, I speak from experience. In most cases, though, it makes no or little difference after specific speed grades.
That said, I'll answer all of your questions and Gigabit-class broadband concerns in this post. Though there are Gig+ -- that's between 1Gbps and 2Gbps -- and faster Internet connections, in the end, Gigabit is the most important milestone.
Dong's note: I first published this piece on April 4, 2020, and updated it on February 1, 2022, to add additional relevant information.
Gigabit Internet: Why you likely won’t experience it in full
The most common questions I got are along the lines of "I only get this much speed on my laptop and that much on my iPad. What is up?"
Let me break it to you right away. Just because you have super-fast Internet doesn't mean you'll experience it on every or even any device. In fact, that's almost always the case.
There are more reasons why you won't see the top download speed than otherwise. I'll list here a few of them.
Data transmission speeds in a nutshell
As you read this page, keep in mind that each character on the screen, including a space between two words, generally requires one byte of data.
The phrase "Dong Knows Tech," with no quotes, requires at least 15 bytes, and likely more since the formatting -- such as capitalization and font -- also needs extra storage space.
Byte -- often in kilobytes (kB), megabytes (MB), or gigabytes (GB) -- is generally used to convey storage space. For data transmission, we use bits.
One byte equals eight bits.
One million (1,000,000) bits = 1 Megabit (Mb).
Megabits per second (Mbps) -- the number of megabits being manipulated in one second -- is the common unit for data transmission nowadays. Based on that, the following are common terms:
- Fast Ethernet: A connection standard that can deliver up to 100Mbps.
- Gigabit: That's short for Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) and generally means transmission speeds in Gigabit per second (Gbps). This is currently the most popular wired connection standard. 1Gbps = 1000Mbps.
- Gig+: A connection that's faster than 1Gbps but slower than 2Gbps. It often applies to 2x2 Wi-Fi 6/6E or Internet speeds.
- Multi-Gigabit: That's multiple Gigabits -- a link that's 2Gbps or faster.
- Multi-Gig: A new BASE-T wired connection standard that delivers 2.5GbE, 5Gbe, or 10GbE over CAT5e (or a higher grade) network cables, depending on the devices involved, and is also backward compatible with Fast Ethernet and Gigabit.
Gigabit is the baseline
First, that's because Gigabit is the baseline of your home network infrastructure.
Specifically, chances are your networking equipment -- be it your router, your switches, your modem, and so on -- caps at 1Gbps. They use Gigabit network ports.
When Gigabit is the ceiling speed, we can't realistically expect it to be the actual speed. Everything has overhead and nothing has 100% efficiency. That's the same as we can't expect a generator to generate enough electricity to power itself.
Even though a wired connection tends to have little overhead, we can only expect to get the true bandwidth to be in the upper 90 percent. That's not to mention the quality of the hardware and cables involved.
In my experience, a good Gigabit wired connection generally sustains somewhere between 800 Mbps to 950 Mbps, on a good day.
If even all of your devices are capable of handling Gig+ or Multi-Gig -- very unlikely -- all it takes is one Gigabit switch in the network to make 1Gbps the ceiling speed of your home infrastructure.
And in some cases, if you happen to have that old Fast Ethernet switch (or router), your speed will be limited to 100Mbps no matter how fast your end devices are.
That's because the speed of a connection is always that of the slowest party involved. Keep this in mind.
Broadband bandwidth is shared
Secondly, even when your provider delivers, the broadband speed is only accurate at the terminal device, such as a cable modem or Fiber-optic ONT -- the point where the Internet enters the property.
Right after that, your home router shares the connection between all devices in your home.
So, say, if you have two devices doing two file downloading jobs, then each only gets half of the broadband bandwidth. And the more clients are actively at the same time, the lower the number is at each of them.
That's why if you want to know how fast your connection truly is, there's quite a bit of work to figure it out. In any case, you'll note that your test scores tend to vary from one test to another.
Most of the Internet itself is sub-Gigabit
Next, you should consider that the broadband speed you pay for is between your home and the provider. And just because you're lucky doesn't mean the rest of the world is, too.
So, for example, when you access a service or website with a sub-Gigabit connection or send a file directly to your friend, who lives in a different city, the speed between the two of you will be that of the slower party.
And there are more parties than just you two. Let's say that you and your friend both have super-fast Internets, the connection between the two of you will still be much slower -- most of the third parties in between are sub-Gigabit.
That's the case with any network connection. Again, the cap connection speed between a pair is always that of the slowest party involved.
In other words, just because you and your friend both have super large driveways doesn't mean you can drive your car at its top speed to their home. That depends on the traffic and the roads that connect the two homes.
So when you do a speed test and happen to use a slow test server or other slow parties in between your home and the server, you'll get a slower-than-expected result -- almost anyone can set up a test server these days.
The point is you can truly enjoy Gigabit-class broadband only when Gigabit is true in the entire Internet as a whole, or at least the part you use. And that will take a while.
Your Wi-Fi is no Gigabit
Again, the top-connection-speed-is-that-of-the-slowest-party notion applies to both WAN (Internet) and LAN (your home) sides. And more likely than not, your local Wi-Fi's sustained rate is slower than 1Gbps.
That's because Wi-Fi has crazy overhead. A negotiated (ceiling) speed of 1.2Gbps (that's 2x2 Wi-Fi 6 at 80MHz) generally averages about 600Mbps of actual throughput at 40 feet (12 m) distance -- that's the best-case scenario.
And though you sure can get a souped-up router, keep in mind that to conserve energy most mobile devices have a 2x2 Wi-Fi 5 adapter, of which the theoretical speed caps at 867Mbps. That's sub-Gigabit from the get-go.
In short, chances are your current local sustained Wi-Fi speeds range between 200 Mbps to 800 Mbps at best. That's fast, but no Gigabit.
In a best-case scenario, when you use the best Wi-Fi 6/6E router and the fastest existing client (2x2 Wi-Fi 6/6E) and the two connect using the widest 160MHz channel width (160GHz), then you'd have a sustained Gig+ speed, which can deliver a Gigabit broadband connection in full.
But we often don't have this scenario in real life since there needs to be a good combo of top-tier hardware, a clean environment, and excellent compatibility for that to happen with existing Wi-Fi standards -- up to Wi-Fi 6E.
You don’t need Gigabit Internet
Indeed, generally, we don't need Gigabit Internet. Most online applications require much less bandwidth than 1Gbps to work correctly. And they won't take more than what they need.
Take streaming, one of the most bandwidth-taxing tasks, for example. You probably only use 30 Mbps at most per a 4K stream; even an 8K streaming needs no more than 100Mbps -- that's one-tenth of Gigabit. So faster Internet doesn't yield any difference.
And that's why even modern streaming devices, such as the Amazon Fire TV or the Xfinity Flex, come with a slow 100Mbps Ethernet adapter -- as an add-on or built-in, respectively. They have no use for anything faster than 100Mbps -- you can only do a single stream at a given time with them.
There are very few applications in which the faster is better. In my experience, file downloading is about the only one.
But even then, how often do you need to get a ton of data at once? That's not to mention most ISPs put a monthly data cap on your plan -- that of Comcast is 1.25TB.
But let's say you need to download a few gigabytes, that's a full-featured 4K movie, at a time, that'd take around 30 seconds over a Gigabit connection. Even at half the speed, I'm sure you can find a few things to do while waiting, like taking a few deep breaths.
So, Gigabit-class Internet and super-faster Wi-Fi routers are overrated?
It's always great to have super-fast connections. You can think of fast broadband as high water pressure in your home. You might not need a lot of water, but it's nice to have all you need come in a short time -- you get things done faster or better.
Also, chances are you don't use the Internet alone. Even if you live alone, you likely have more than one device. The faster the speeds, be it locally or on the Internet, the more devices connect simultaneously at their highest possible rates.
Again, take streaming as an example -- a Gigabit connection will allow a few dozen devices to view 4K content from Netflix at a time. And that's nice.
But it's true that, unless you have a big family, faster connections don't yield anything extra after a certain point. It's now just a luxury.
What router or mesh system should I get if I have Gigabit Internet and want to get the most out of it at all times?
If you live in a small home and only need a single router, ensure it can handle the fastest possible Wi-Fi speed. So get a router that has 4x4 specs on a single band.
Better yet, consider top-tier Multi-Gig routers -- you can consider those of the highest number of bands. That's because Wi-Fi bandwidth is shared, so the more bands a router has, the more concurrent clients it can handle without slowing down.
Again, it would help if you increased the home network's infrastructure to Multi-Gig before you can enjoy your Gigabit broadband in full.
By the way, sometimes, messing with the MTU and Jumbo Frame settings helps, too.
So slower Wi-Fi is no good for Gigabit Internet?
Not necessary. As I mentioned above, you only need the Internet speed fast enough for the application at hand.
And almost all Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6 routers are more than fast enough to deliver any online applications' broadband needs.
That said, there's no need to go overboard with the fastest router on the market. Get one that has enough bandwidth for everyone in your family.
How to figure out the needed Wi-Fi bandwidth
Here's simple math in figuring out which router is good enough.
Take two-thirds of the total 5GHz bandwidth of a router, and that's its ballpark sustained local speed. (I know there are the 2.4GHz and 6GHz bands, too, but the 5GHz is the most popular for now.)
Divide that number by your family members to get an idea of how much bandwidth each will get when everyone is online at the same time.
For example, the Asus RT-AX86U has the top speed on the 5GHz band of 4800 Mbps, or 2400 Mbps if you're conservative -- most devices don't use 160MHz.
Consequently, you can expect a sure sustained bandwidth of 1600 Mbps. So if you have four in your family, each will get an allotment of 400 Mbps.
That doesn't mean all of you will connect at that speed or even close, but you'll have an idea of everyone's portion of your network's capacity. Also, note that you can also use the router's 2.4GHz for some extra bandwidth.
By the way, 400 Mbps is way more than anything you'd need for Internet access, so the RT-AX88U can easily handle a house of dozen or so members and still give everyone speedy access.
Note that this doesn't mean each person will not use more than their bandwidth allotment. A heavy BitTorrent user in a home can hog all the bandwidth, no matter how fast your Internet is. But this is the case where you need the help of QoS.
How fast is my broadband compared with others?
So how fast is your broadband on your device right now? Take a quick test below.
You're not alone if your numbers aren't anywhere close to Gigabit. Below are the average speeds of those taking this same test in the past couple of days from around the world.
While the numbers don't represent the entire Internet, one thing is for sure: We're still a long way to go before true Gigabit-class broadband.
Having Gigabit-class Internet access probably feels like you've moved up in the world. Enjoy it!
Keep in mind that if you don't get the full speed on your specific device for one reason or another, that only means there's more bandwidth left for others in your home. Also, you'll likely need to get your home wired if you really want to enjoy Gigabit or faster.
Like a race car, a fast broadband connection gives you more options. In reality, as long as you're already moving at the rate you need, the actual speed numbers don't matter much.
I've been uploading all of what you're reading here on this website via a 19Mbps or slower connection -- Cable Internet, like mine, has a crazy slow upload speed compared to the download. And I sure won't be any more productive just because my Internet gets faster.
There's only so much a fast connection can contribute. It's always what you do with it and with your time that matters.